Voice from the heartlandhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/congress-rahul-gandhi-assembly-elections-results-lok-sabha-polls5510958/

Voice from the heartland

Assembly election results give Congress confidence, set up battle for 2019.

congress, rahul gandhi, assembly elections results, Rajasthan assembly elections results, madhya pradesh assembly elections results, bjp, farmers loan waiver, farmers protest, muslims, indian express
Congress President Rahul Gandhi at a press conference in New Delhi. (Express Photo: Amit Mehra/File)

End-of-the-year election results for 2018 have set the stage for the battle ahead in 2019. They have given the Congress the fuel for a fight and the BJP reasons for course correction. The verdict in Madhya Pradesh was an anti-BJP verdict (candidate centric), the one in Rajasthan anti-Vasundhara Raje, and, in Chhattisgarh, a pro-Congress verdict.

The BJP polled more votes than the Congress in Madhya Pradesh despite 15 years of anti-incumbency and had a marginal 0.5 per cent vote share difference in Rajasthan after the expectation of a rout. The results from Chhattisgarh on the other hand saw the BJP’s vote share dip by 10 per cent, something which is unprecedented.

Many see the Madhya Pradesh verdict as a reflection of the resentment of the rural voter against the BJP. This is quintessential Lutyens journalism and analysis — distant from ground reality. The BJP in MP won the seat of Mandsaur; the birthplace of the farmer agitation which the Congress banked on to ride home successfully. It even won six/seven seats in Mandsaur and Neemuch, rural districts in the Malwa Nimar region.

The result was rather an expression of another kind of discontent — against the party’s haste or activism in the SC/ST ordinance. Surprisingly, and worryingly for the BJP, this resentment on the ground comes from the core, traditional voter of the BJP. The ordinance did not reap enough electoral benefits from the SCs: The BJP, which had won 27 of 32 SC seats in 2013, could only manage 18 in 2018. It could also not open its seat count in Morena district in the Gwalior region, which for the first time polled completely in favour of Congress.

The Rajasthan results did not have layers like Madhya Pradesh. Caste equations and anger against the incumbent chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, were the two important aspects of the verdict. The expectation in Rajasthan was of a Congress sweep with more than 120 seats for the party. But, a last-minute push by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s revitalisation of the cadre, helped BJP close the gap. The popular slogan, “Vasundhara teri khair nahi, Modi tujhse bair nahi”, resonated even with BJP workers. The voter trust for Modi undoubtedly continues to remain effective after almost five years, and will again be the BJP’s trump card: Overall, out of 138 assembly constituencies across the three states which saw Modi rallies, the BJP managed to win 79 of these seats.

Despite repeated attempts by the BJP to represent different castes in the ticket distribution, the Congress fared better in almost all caste-wise result outcomes. The Rajput community, a traditional voter base of the BJP, only supported it in 58 per cent seats unlike in the past where more than 80 per cent rallied behind the BJP. This is purely due to disenchantment with Raje. On the other hand, the Congress maintained a support base of 60 per cent of its traditional Jat voters like in the past.

Unexpectedly, even with the Kirodi Lal Meena factor favouring the BJP, the Congress won four more Meena-dominated seats than the BJP. The Meena move was perhaps too little too late for the BJP. Meenas, who are STs, were disappointed by the Raje government when it came to delivering on the promise of government jobs. The stance of the BJP on the SC/ST Act also dampened the party’s prospects in Rajasthan — it won six less SC seats than the Congress. Earlier, a counter consolidation of non-SC caste used to help the BJP win more seats than the Congress.

The Chhattisgarh assembly results were a silver lining for the Congress, which got nearly everything correct in its electoral strategy. Contrary to popular perception, Ajit Jogi proved to be a nightmare for the BJP, eating away its vote share in central Chhattisgarh. The BJP witnessed the sharpest drop in its vote share reported till date in Chhattisgarh — 10 per cent, something which was very difficult to gauge pre-election. The promise of farm-loan waiver, strategically projecting regional chief ministerial faces, and unemployment allowance for the youth facing job deprivation, enabled the Congress to build a silent momentum in its favour. Improper ticket distribution by the BJP and its inability to arrest the fatigue factor associated with repeat candidates aggravated the loss. This result also showed that a popular chief minister can also be defeated convincingly, even in the absence of an alternative popular face.

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Still, Verdict 2018 cannot be projected onto 2019. National elections for 2019 will witness presidential-style campaigning by Modi, while the Opposition will attempt to reduce the contest into state-wise battles. For the BJP, the Modi factor is still helping the party pose a considerable fight, even in states that are giving strong signs of anti-incumbency and local discontent. The Congress, on the other hand, will be hoping to continue the momentum of 2018 in 2019. It will now be a revived, confident primary opposition party entering the national election season. 2019 will be the most keenly fought Indian election in the recent past.